Sunday Telegraph: When David Donohue hunts for clues to Iran building a secret nuclear bomb, the smoking gun he looks for is likely to be 100 times smaller than a human hair. The Sunday Telegraph
By Colin Freeman in Seibersdorf, Austria
When David Donohue hunts for clues to Iran building a secret nuclear bomb, the smoking gun he looks for is likely to be 100 times smaller than a human hair.
A single stray picogram of plutonium, one trillionth of a gram, is all that is needed to raise suspicions that a civilian nuclear plant could be making weapons-grade material. “It is like looking for fingerprints,” said Mr Donohue. “To make a bomb you need about 10kg of plutonium or enriched uranium, but we can find nanograms or picograms, which are about 15 orders of magnitude less than that. There’s just no way you can hide it.”
Mr Donohue is part of a multinational team of scientific sleuths attached to the International Atomic Energy Agency, whose latest monitoring report on Iran’s nuclear programme is due next month.
If the agency uncovers evidence of suspicious activities, or reports that Teheran is failing to co-operate with its inspectors, it could pave the way for international sanctions and, ultimately, military strikes. As the Sunday Telegraph reports today, Britain is putting into place secret plans in the event of an American-led attack on Iran, despite the insistence of Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, that military action is “inconceivable”.
On Wednesday, the Islamic republic upped the stakes by announcing that it would defy a United Nations Security Council request to halt proscribed uranium enrichment research, which Teheran insists is for purely peaceful purposes.
With attention focused on the outcome of its work, last week the agency granted reporters a tour of its laboratories in the quiet town of Seibersdorf, 25 miles from its headquarters in Vienna.
Tucked away on an industrial estate, it is the atomic equivalent of a Scotland Yard forensics lab – a network of rooms full of chemistry sets, computers and electron microscopes designed to pinpoint proof of wrongdoing.
Yet the first step in its nuclear detective work is rather more low-tech: an agency inspector visits a plant, takes a cotton swab, and looks for places that have not been dusted recently.
No matter what efforts are made to hide evidence of illicit atomic distillations, radioactive particles will find their way into the atmosphere and any dust that settles will most likely contain a few.
The swabs are sent to Seibersdorf to be put through a mass spectrometer, a chemical analysis device that can pinpoint the slightest traces of suspicious elements. “You could get rid of 90 or 99 per cent, but there is still enough for us to find it,” said Mr Donohue.
The Seibersdorf facility analyses about 600 samples a year, taken from nuclear facilities in the 50-odd countries deemed of “interest” to the agency. All are signatories of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.
To ensure international confidence in the agency’s findings, Mr Donohue and his colleagues are never told what country the swabs are from. Duplicate samples are also sent to laboratories in Russia, America, France and Japan for independent analysis.
Chemical analysis is, however, just one tactic that the agency has developed in its cat-and-mouse games with states such as Iran, North Korea, and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
Equally important is the work of the 200-strong team of field inspectors, who tour plants, interview technicians and check stockpiles to see if any uranium or plutonium has disappeared.
Pilfering from a nuclear plant is not easy, according to John Kinney, a British inspector at the agency’s Vienna office. “Most nuclear facilities have a stringent paper trail for all fuel,” he said. “If you are going to steal material, you have to falsify documents, all of which tend to be interlinked. The process is so complicated that it is difficult to do anything without getting caught.”
The agency also puts up remote monitoring cameras to watch vaults of fuel and other sensitive spots, built to higher security specifications than those in high-deposit bank vaults. The tamper-proof cameras are safeguarded against being short circuited to display a false image.
Massimo Aparo, the head of the agency’s surveillance laboratory, said: “Our cameras have a device that authenticates each picture, so that can’t happen, and lasers that can detect movement.”
As a final check, the cameras are checked by selected foreign intelligence agencies to see if the real-life equivalents of the Bond films’ Q can find any way to fool them. So far, Mr Aparo says, none has managed to do so.